Thursday, October 30, 2008

What interests me in steampunk stories (and what really doesn't)

So recently we've had Strange Horizons' review of the Steampunk and Extraordinary Engines anthologies. Then Fantasy Magazine this week is running a whole series of articles and commentary and comedy around the topic of steampunk, and to top it off, a writer on a forum I'm part of asked yesterday what exactly steampunk is--she'd seen it in guidelines but didn't really know.

This has me thinking. I don't identify myself as purely a steampunk writer or reader (or DIY designer), but I do dabble in it and enjoy it. But it seems there are a lot of pieces to steampunk that a person might latch onto and think, this is why I like steampunk.

So the first obvious thing I like is just the gadgets--the gears and steam valves are simply fun. There isn't a whole lot more to this than fun, no philosophical reason why despite some attempts fans have made to assign deeper meaning to it. As a teenager I loved swords. Now that feels somewhat childish, perhaps because of the romanticism some place on swords...but really liking clockwork and steam engines is no less childish and no less susceptible to silly romanticism. So I really haven't matured, I've merely hidden my childishness behind other objects.

Before moving on to the other things I like, let me just get out what doesn't interest me--Victoriana itself. I mean, I like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, I like the era's book and graphic design, and I like other literature from the time period, but it isn't London itself that attracts me. It isn't the specifics of the historic time period. It's the underlying systems and the interesting way an author might transpose them and juxtapose them with other ideas and settings.

Which begs the question of what those underlying systems are. I've set stories I've written in many different time periods, from hunter-gatherer societies to early cities, late Bronze Age through early industrial and on into the future. And to a certain extent, I'd say the same about each of those settings--it isn't the historic specifics (I'm not trying to recreate an actual Mesopotamian city-state and if I want to evoke castles and manors, it isn't out of fascination with, say, Norman or Celtic history) but with how those specific practices develop and change and influence the people living there. For the early industrial era, then, I like the sense of change, the tension between exciting newness and the things that are lost. Change is, of course, inherent in any time period, but the industrial revolution seems especially suited to explore that. It's also an era of immigration, of country people moving to the scary cities and of people traveling to new lands for different opportunities. Both situations are ripe for interesting stories and tough tensions. Add in there the growth of tensions between factory workers and owners and the early glimmers of environmental awareness when faced with the devestation of coal-burning factories, and you have some great dynamics to work with.

That attitude probably reflects back to what I was saying a few months ago about setting and escapism--issues of justice, immigration, environment, these are contemporary matters that demand thought (and action), and divorcing them from today's real world connotations lets me (in writing or in reading) examine them without taking a knee-jerk response and really give them the thought they deserve.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Zeppelin!

I haven't gotten into the zeppelin craze as much as many other readers and writers...but I do find them a fascinating image for the imagination, both imagining what it was like for the historic airships and imagining how they might have continued developing in an alternate technological timeline. So this article about modern-day zeppelins as a tourist attraction in San Francisco is very cool. I wonder where else they might be able to run sight-seeing zeppelin runs...

Friday, October 24, 2008

Birthday Cake

So, a brief rundown of my life in the past week goes:
  • Prepare for birthday party for 4-year-old
  • Host party for something like 15 kids (and their parents
  • Clean up after party
  • Likely because of someone at the party, come down with a cold on the same day my wife gets a cold
  • And because of the cold and my own kids, get three consecutive nights of next to no sleep
I don't typically say a lot about my personal life here, but the week-plus absence made it feel worth doing. I'm mostly over the cold already, and hopefully I'll be able to get more writing, more critiquing, more revising, and more blogging over the next week. For now I'll leave you with this picture of the cake my wife made for the party:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

So close...

A disappointing rejection this morning. Well, an encouraging one in some senses--the story nearly made it in, and the email response included some of the back and forth of the editors/slush readers or whatever they were. The first of those was full of incredibly high praise. S/he absolutely loved it and compared it (in one aspect at least) very favorably with some big name novel writers. Which is interesting, as it's a flash piece... The second was more ambivalent, though s/he appreciated it, and the third seemed to actively dislike it.

So...it's thrilling to see those kind words about it, and the editor too said that he's sure it will be published soon somewhere. This is the second time with this market that I've had a near miss where one or more readers seemed strongly in favor, but that wasn't enough to get it in. So where's the market that has that type of reader as the decision-maker instead of just part of a committee? (Well, for all I know the one who liked the earlier story was the one who disliked this...or maybe they have different readers all the time.) And two (out of three so far) subs to this market making it that far is a pretty good sign that I should keep trying to break in to it.

This is a story I definitely believe in, so I'm going to keep trying with other top-tier markets for now (this was the first market I'd sent it to). At 800 words, it would be surprising if got anything more than "thanks, but not for our publication" from many of the places that would otherwise be my first choice. But it'll be going back out as soon as I decide where...

Thursday, October 09, 2008

A lovely Strange Map

This was posted a few days ago, but I just noticed it today, The Semicolonial State of San Seriffe. I don't want to say any more so I don't affect how you approach it, but do go learn the wonderful history of this little Indian Ocean island.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

An old book

At various times I've mentioned Lord Dunsany here as a writer I enjoy. A fair chunk of his work is available at Project Gutenberg, but I decided I wanted to check out a physical book of some of his stories instead. Our local library has only one collection, but the library is part of a bigger grouping of libraries throughout northern Colorado that share their holdings without a lot of restrictions. Once in a while a request will come back denied because the book is one that the library isn't willing to send out, but generally it's as if I have an account with dozens of different regional and city libraries.

So I requested two Dunsany books that I found there, one a recent collection from Penguin Classics. The other was listed as a book from 1906, and its title, Time and the Gods matched the book published then, but I suspected it was a later reissue, or that if it really was from 1906, then the library would deny the request. Wrong on both. The book isn't in great shape, isn't even in good shape, but it's beautiful nonetheless. The illustrations are themselves a wonderful part of it, and there's something about the smell of an old book I love.

As a college student I worked in the school's library, so I've held older books, and likely rarer books, but that in no way dimishes the pleasure in holding this, in carefully leafing through its pages, and in reading these stories.

Dunsany is frequently referred to by fantasy writers. He's honored by writers as diverse as LeGuin (whose writing I greatly admire) and Eddings (whose...well not so much) plus many others whose works I've enjoyed--Lovecraft, Moorcock, Beagle, Borges, Gaiman... And apparently in earlier decades there was a bad tendency to try to write like him...usually with predictably awful results. But I frequently get the sense that most fantasy readers today haven't read him. Many of his works are here at Project Gutenberg, so do check him out.

According to the Penguin Classics intro, by the way, it's pronounced dun-SAY-knee, which surprised me. I'm still trying to roll that name around on my tongue to get used to it.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Bar Book Club report

Scramble and confusion seemed to be the themes last night for our book club gathering...

Beer of choice--well, I'd ordered an Existential Porter, but apparently they'd just run out of it and rather than coming back to ask what I'd rather have, they substituted something completely different for it. That wasn't the end of the confusion, though. They then gave Cask-conditioned Punjabi Pale Ale to me and the other person who'd ordered the porter and gave the rye ale they had decided to offer in place of the porter to two others in our group (who'd ordered the Punjabi). I like the Punjabi Ale--it might have been my second choice if they'd asked--but you'd think they'd at least ask. We didn't make a big deal of it, but I'm still unimpressed.

We'd read Annie Dillard's The Living, a historical fiction novel set in colonial Pacific Northwest in the second half of the 19th century. It ends up centering roughly around one character, who goes from a rather shallow young man to a more thoughtful part of his family and community, but really I'd say it's more the story of the location and time period than about any particular character. Not many of us had read the entire book (and even I only did because I sped-read some pretty big sections...for which I blame how engrossed I'd been in Wolfe's Return to the Whorl so I didn't start this soon enough). Those of us who did had all read her nonfiction as well, and all agreed that she's a better nonfiction writer than fiction. That sounds overly critical--we really did enjoy this book, and it's not bad at all, but it just didn't seem quite up to the high mark of her nonfiction. It did seem a bit over long, and the antagonist (as much as there was one) seemed a bit contrived, but the development of Clare Fishburn and the evocation of the milieu and such were very well done.

The next part of our confusion was in who was supposed to bring the next selections. The person we'd been expecting to bring them was in Chicago for a conference. Of the other two whose turn we though it must be, one has a newborn and couldn't very well leave, and the other send a message midday yesterday that he couldn't make it either. So in case no one else brought anything, I grabbed a few on my way out the door. And good thing too. So our next book will be The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia. Hopefully next time they can handle our beer orders better.